Year 1 of Tracy Claeys' tenure as Gophers head coach began before dawn last Oct. 28, when his close friend and longtime boss, Jerry Kill, resigned because of health reasons.
While Minnesota came to grips with the shocking news, Claeys took over as acting head coach, with three days to prepare for Michigan. The next 12 months brought Claeys some tantalizingly close losses, some too-close-for-comfort wins, a new contract and a new athletic director.
On Saturday, Claeys begins Year 2 with a game at Illinois, another seemingly critical test for him and his staff as they look to gain the confidence of Gophers fans.
Coming off last week's unsettling 34-32 victory over Rutgers, the Gophers (5-2, 2-2 Big Ten) are nine-point favorites heading to Champaign, Ill., with a chance to become bowl-eligible.
"Everybody wants you to win by 21 points every week," Claeys said. "I'm just still awfully proud of the way we compete, and we play physical. We're a better football team than we were a year ago. I mean, I believe that."
Claeys has gone 7-6 as a head coach after Kill went 29-29 overall with the Gophers, and 6-7 in his final 13 games.
Claeys, who spent two decades as a defensive coordinator under Kill, has yet to deliver a signature win, like the ones Kill notched over Michigan and Nebraska in 2014.
The six losses under Claeys have all come against higher-profile Big Ten teams — Michigan, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Penn State and Iowa (twice). Most were hard-fought games, but cynics are just as quick to note the seven-point squeakers over Oregon State and Colorado State, and the last-minute field goal it took to vanquish Rutgers.
"With Rutgers, no matter what everybody thinks, the game was still won, and you move forward," said Kill, who still talks to Claeys frequently. "People are ticked off at it, and you know, they've got a right to be. But you can't worry about that as a coach.
"I think Tracy handles all that stuff pretty good and lets it go off his shoulder. You can't worry about the media. Just win because at the end of the deal, if you go beat Nebraska, and you go beat Wisconsin, everybody forgets those other two losses."
Last Nov. 11, university President Eric Kaler and then-interim AD Beth Goetz signed Claeys to a three-year contract, for $1.5 million per season. With a buyout of just $250,000 per remaining season, the deal set up Claeys for a prove-it year under a new AD.
In May, Kaler filled the AD job by luring Mark Coyle away from Syracuse. In his one year as Syracuse AD, Coyle fired football coach Scott Shafer and replaced him with Dino Babers.
Claeys did not know Coyle before he was hired, but now the two have had five months to work together.
"I appreciate his steady approach," Coyle said this week. "I went from being the deputy athletic director at Kentucky, to the AD at Boise State. There's a transition that takes place, and we've talked about that transition and how the job changes."
Asked how he evaluates Claeys and his staff, Coyle said: "I appreciate their effort. I feel it's my job, all of our jobs, to do everything we can to support that staff and Coach Claeys, because they have high expectations.
"We're 5-2; that's wonderful. We've got a big game this week at Illinois. You go one week at a time, and you keep moving."
Claeys shook up his staff last November, when he fired longtime offensive coordinator Matt Limegrover and quarterbacks coach Jim Zebrowski. He replaced them with Jay Johnson (offensive coordinator/QB coach) and Bart Miller (offensive line coach).
So far, the offense has improved. Under Claeys, the Gophers have averaged 28.2 points, up from 23.9 in their final 13 games under Kill.
But the Gophers went from the fourth-least-penalized team in the Big Ten last year (45.5 yards per game) to 13th this year (66.6).
Players say the biggest difference under Claeys has been the increased emphasis on physicality.
"Practices are a lot more physical," junior defensive end Gaelin Elmore said. "Tuesday, Wednesday — we really get after it. But outside of that, there really wasn't an adjustment [from Kill]."
In the recruiting rankings, the Gophers have fallen toward the bottom of the Big Ten, where they often resided under Kill. But the Gophers signed their highest-ranked recruiting class of the Kill/Claeys era this spring, a group ranked No. 49 nationally in the 247Sports.com composite.
The class included three new starting offensive linemen (Garrison Wright, Vincent Calhoun and Donnell Greene), wide receiver Tyler Johnson, starting safety Antoine Winfield, linebackers Carter Coughlin and Kamal Martin, defensive end Tai'yon Devers and quarterback Seth Green.
"I'm excited about what's still to come because I think we were able to secure a really, really good group of players," defensive coordinator Jay Sawvel said. "A lot of them are playing as freshmen. They're not perfect yet. But all these guys will be good players."
More than football
Beyond the record, statistics and recruiting rankings, Claeys said the Gophers continue to excel academically. Last year's Academic Progress Rate helped them land a bowl berth, despite a 5-7 regular season.
"We've kept 80 percent of the principles of Coach Kill, and they've been proven over time," Claeys said. "… I think if [Kill] came back today, he'd be proud that the principles are in place. Our APR's going to be high again, and we've continued to do it right."
In Year 1, Claeys dealt with some heavy off-field developments. Coordinators Sawvel and Johnson both lost their fathers within a span of seven weeks. Linebackers coach Mike Sherels had multiple surgeries and was clinging to life with an intestinal issue before bouncing back to resume his duties.
Claeys also suspended four players, including starting cornerback KiAnte Hardin, for three games while Minneapolis Police investigated an incident from the early morning hours after the Sept. 1 season opener.
None of the players was arrested, and Claeys reinstated them after Hennepin County announced it was declining to press charges. But the alleged victim, who is part of the Gophers gameday operation, filed for two-year restraining orders that banned those four players and two others from TCF Bank Stadium for the Rutgers game.
Five players still have restraining orders, with their next hearing scheduled for Thursday, two days before the next home game against Purdue.
"In terms of the effect [on the program], I'm not with the kids day in and day out with that team," Coyle said. "I think that might be a better question for Coach Claeys and how they're managing their stuff."
At Tuesday's news conference, Claeys faced questions about the restraining orders and declining attendance numbers. Asked if all that makes it hard to keep players focused, he said: "When they show up in the building, it's time to do football. We practiced well last week. Our kids prepared well. I think the way we came out of the gate [Rutgers] shows they were ready to go."
The Gophers led 21-3 after the first quarter before allowing Rutgers to take the lead. But Kill's teams had lapses, too. They were 6-1 heading to Illinois two years ago and suffered a four-point upset. The coaches have driven home that point all week.
"We've got to learn, we're not good enough to get up 21-3 and take the air out of the ball," Sawvel said. "There's not a four-corner stall. We're not good enough to do that. Not very many teams are."